The Struggle to Overcome Social Anxiety

Editor’s Note:  My husband Jack for years has interviewed talented high school seniors applying to MIT, the great university from which he received his Master’s Degree. Recently he met with “Sasha” Naumenko who was born and spent her early years in Russia. Sasha wound up discussing the difficulties she had learning two languages as a young child and how that struggle led to the social anxieties she experienced and learned to overcome. Jack was so impressed with Sasha’s ability to overcome early adversities that he suggested she share her story with visitors to the Garden State Woman web site. Sasha, like thousands of young people throughout the country, now waits to learn if she has been admitted to the college of her choice, i.e. MIT.  Judy Chapman, Founder & Editor


For practically my whole life, I’ve been struggling to overcome my social anxiety.  Although this battle was certainly not an easy one, I ended up triumphing in the end. In retrospect, the duration of my social struggles could have been reduced had I let my parents intervene.

From personal experience, as well as from observing others with the same predicament, I noticed that children often feel embarrassed about admitting their social problems to their parents. In the fifth grade, I ate lunch alone for an entire year, while my parents were under the impression that I ate lunch with friends.

It’s not uncommon to find parents being involved in their children’s academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits, but the social progression of a child is often left to chance. Whether you suspect social anxiety in your child or not, I highly advise all parents to reach out to their children and be catalysts in the developing of the proper social skills that are critical for a person’s success.

There is a wide variety of causes for social anxiety, but mine resulted from communicative issues. The confusion from having to learn Russian and English, two entirely different languages, caused an unusual delay in the time it took for me to begin speaking. Once I reached age four, the problem was identified and my parents focused on teaching me Russian to encourage me to begin speaking, on the assumption that learning English would be easy once school began, but learning Russian in an English-speaking country would be a much harder task. Feeling uncomfortable with my English skills in my beginning years of schooling caused me to refrain from interacting with others. Even once I was proficient in the English language, I still felt uncomfortable communicating with my peers because I had an obnoxious accent. The social problems that would develop from this restraint of interaction were hard to foresee. Elementary school kids are seen as cheerful, innocent children, incapable of inflicting harm onto others. Little did they know that I encountered my first set of bullies during at that age. For this reason, social guidance should begin at the earliest stages of your children’s interactions. The sooner you identify any predispositions towards social problems, the easier they will be to counteract in the future.

Since social skills are so crucial in today’s interactive world, I can’t stress enough the importance of parents reaching out to their children in order to ensure the development of social abilities. Every child has a different temperament. Regardless of whether your child prefers large amounts of socialization, or if your child is intrapersonal and prefers limited interaction, it is vital that they are socially competent. Popularity is not a necessity; however social capabilities are a must.

I came to this realization one day when I was working on a lab experiment with classmates in my 8th grade science class. Being paralyzed by my excessive shyness, although I knew the material well, I gave very little input. One day, my lab partners misinterpreted the objective the lab and were improperly following procedure. I was perfectly aware of the complications that could arise from these errors, but couldn’t bring myself to speak up. Instead, I simply followed their method. I vividly remember the horrible feeling I had that night as I pondered to what extent this social weakness had been interfering with my life. Not only had I knowingly passively allowed points to be deducted from my grade for the lab, but I had also let down my lab partners, that were counting on me as a partner to serve as a positive contribution to our lab group. At that point, it became painfully clear to me that regardless of how talented a person is, s/he will be severely limited in their opportunities for success.

 

After that experience, I embarked on a journey to discover my social prowess and integrate myself into the social world. My parents suspected my social discontent, but I went to great lengths to convince them otherwise. Clandestinely, I indulged myself in the self-help and social psychology sections at borders to learn everything there is to know about social psychology.

 

The most valuable lesson I learned from this intensive research is the importance of being able to evaluate yourself socially from an outsider’s perspective. Everybody has individual strengths and weaknesses, and influential people are able to identify this range of abilities and channel it into the most effective approach to engaging with others.

Also, part of understanding yourself in the social context involves understanding others. Of course, a degree in psychology is not mandatory in order to achieve social skills, but merely being sensitive to others feelings and being observant to their reactions to various stimuli are critical for being able to establish yourself as a competent social member of the community.

After re-entering the social world with this change of perspective, I started immediately showing results. Around this time, to her dismay, my mother discovered a loose sheet of paper where I vented about the social issues that I’ve been facing, and how I feel trapped. This entry described how it felt like an oppressive dogma; once I became convinced that I was socially inept, I couldn’t build up the courage to interact with my peers. Since I already expected the worst, all my attempts to approach and befriend a person ended with me clamming up and walking away feeling embarrassed and hesitant to try this again. Worried about this vicious cycle described in my entry, my parents approached me with suggestions. Although I was already showing improvement, my parents gave a few more suggestions that sped up the recovery process.

As I started 9th grade, I joined the tennis team. My dad gave me the assignment to report back to him with at least one phone number of a teammate, so I could possibly contact her to see if she would be interested in hitting together to practice outside of our sessions. I was absolutely horrified by this request, but my dad made me realize that my social fears were irrational. He inspired me with the question, “What’s the worst that could happen? If the girl walks away laughing at you, then she clearly has no etiquette and her friendship wouldn’t be worth it in the first place.” Feeling the comfort of having such passionately concerned parents, and convinced by my dad’s reasoning, for the first time in my life, I entered this social scene with complete and utter social confidence. At the end of the practice, when my parents came to pick me up, I reported not one, but three phone numbers to them, and asked them if I could stay for another hour or two because one of those girls asked me to stay after practice with her and do some additional hitting. At this moment, I was both ecstatic and miserable at the same time; I felt like I have finally conquered my social anxieties, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but to regret not taking the initiative to cure myself of my inhibitions and welcome the input of my wise and more-experienced parents sooner.

Sadly, I’m only one of many people that have had these struggles. Shyness is a social epidemic that affects practically the entire population. How many people can stay that they haven’t at one time or another been stricken with shaky knees or clammy palms because of some uncomfortable social situation? Unfortunately, there are many children that just like me that experienced these feelings in a long-term sense, to the point of them hindering their happiness and interfering with their daily lives. There is nothing that would make me happier than to help anyone suffering from social anxiety by sharing my insights gathered from personal experience and from the observation of others. Hopefully my reflections will inspire any parents reading this to rise to the challenge of overseeing their childrens’ social development.

Last modified onTuesday, 19 March 2013 15:52
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